How to Hunt off a bike

Norco Bigfoot hunting setup with trailer and bows
The setup hauled six days worth of gear for fifteen miles. Four more miles were packed on foot to base camp. Base camp was reached the first night.

Brands are mentioned in this article. I have no affiliation with them and have received no compensation.

Do you remember that feeling as a kid when you got your first bike? How about when you got your first deer? For many, these are two of the most exciting memories from our youth. The bike meant exhilaration and freedom. Killing a deer called upon more complicated emotions. Both left lasting impressions in our minds, and that associated memory is probably why I have found my favorite hunting access to be from the saddle of two-wheeled, human-powered machine.

Trail Selection

Hunting by bicycle access can be an efficient way to a little deeper into the woods in less time than hiking, while expending less energy. But, it isn’t meant to go everywhere. A trail actually has to meet some pretty select criteria for me if I’m going to head out on a bike hunt. The criteria are based on goals of efficiency, safety, respect, and the law.

The first thing to know about a trail is what users are allowed on it, and how heavy the use is. For starters, bikes are not allowed in designated wilderness areas on Forest Service land, so be prepared to unmount and stash you bike when you get to the boundary of any wilderness area, as it will be hike-in access from there onward. Electric bikes, also known as E-bikes, have further restricted use on public trails, as they are technically considered motor vehicles on most Forest Service and BLM land. E-bikes have several advantages over motorcycles in that they are lightweight, efficient, quiet, don’t emit exhaust, and tread more gently on the trails. But, they are motor vehicle travel, and let’s not kid ourselves by thinking they are the same as conventional bicycles.

You should always check the local land management agency’s website to find what users are allowed on specific trails, as well as recent trail reports. If the spring blowdowns have not been cleared, or if the trail is muddy or otherwise vulnerable to erosion, it’s probably best to pick another route. Trails that receive heavy horse traffic should be given consideration as well. The last thing you want to do is come around a corner and spook a pack line. Plus, one main advantage of hunting off a bike is the added mobility and trail range over other hunting pressure. If your frequenting trails with a lot of horse traffic, your not going to be capitalizing on that advantage.

The biggest factor that goes into my trail selection is the technical rating (rocky, rooted, or otherwise steep or uneven condition) of the trail. If I’m heading out with gear for a multi-day hunt, I’m probably going to pick a pretty mellow trail. This is especially true if you are going to be hauling a trailer, since a double wheel trailer will usually require a wider and more developed trail for efficient travel. A single wheel trailer can be pulled on narrower single track, but just be prepared to spend some time and frustration getting bucked around or having to dismount and push. Ideally, I would want to find a trail that is a steady, smooth, uphill grade while heading out to he hunting spot, allowing for a mellow downhill back home if I’m coming out loaded with meat. Fire roads with storm damage that have made them otherwise impassible to motor vehicles (but open to other non-motorized traffic) are great opportunities to extend beyond hiker range into unpressured country. If riding without a trailer, a pack on your back or bike rack (sweet rhyme section right there) can make for an odd center of mass and throw off your balance, limiting your ability to travel some trails. That being said, I will usually take on more technical trail for a day trip where I have a relatively light gear load.

Think through your plan before you load up with a weapon and expensive hunting gear strapped to your bike. A trail that is within your ability level while on a summer recreational ride may turn into a real bear once you head out with your hunting gear. Consider safety before all else.

Bike and Gear Setup

Felt DD geared for a day hunt
The rear rack in this photo is primarily used as a hitch. I find a trailer hitched off the seatpost is easier to pull than one hitched to the rear axle. The front scabbard works for rifles, shotguns, bows, and fishing rods.

If your in the market for a new bike to take hunting and you need some tips on what to look for, check out my previous article here.

Even though he turned out to be a colossal liar and world-class cheater, Lance Armstrong was still accurate when he said “It’s not about the bike”. If you have a bike with air in the tires and lube on the chain, you can take it hunting. If your current bike has neither of those things and has been sitting in your garage for twelve years, then you may need to reevaluate how ready you are to hunt from it. In reality, if it has been sitting for a year or more, then it should be taken in to a local bike shop for a tune up before riding. Keep in mind that not many bikes are designed with the forethought of carrying a significant load beyond the weight of the rider, so you want to make sure everything is in order and working properly. Don’t get me wrong, bikes are built to take a pretty substantial pounding on the trail, and you can safely load it with an impressive amount of gear provided you’ve properly maintained the bike, balanced your load, and most importantly, realize that you won’t be able to bomb down the trails like a maniac.

My gear loading order of preference is as follows:

Rambo ( https://rambobikes.com)makes a really nice hunting trailer. It is designed to hitch only to their racks, but can be fitted to other racks with minor modification. But, I’m sure someone should comment that it voids all warranty or whatever.
  1. Trailer. If the trail is wide and mellow enough for a two-wheel trailer, then that is where my gear goes. Trailers, even when loaded heavy, are surprisingly efficient and comfortable to pull. As mentioned above, the ability to pull a trailer is controlled by trail conditions and terrain, so give yourself a reality check to see how much time you would be willing to be off the bike pushing it versus the convenience of the time riding with the trailer. With a trailer, the weight of all your gear is primarily going to be transferred straight down into the ground through the trailer wheels, with a small amount of weight transferred through the hitch to the bike itself. This allows for the most comfortable and stable ride. Also, you can usually load up a trailer with a lot more weight than you can comfortably put on a bike. I have hauled out a 150 lb load over 15 miles of bumpy trail without a problem. Lateral load balancing is less of a concern with a two-wheel trailer, but you need to pay more attention to fore-aft balance, since you don’t want the trailer hitch putting excessive downforce into the rear of your bike (or conversely lifting your rear wheel off the ground).
  2. Rear rack. If I can’t bring a trailer, then I’m going to utilize a rear frame rack as much as possible. With a trailer, you will probably have to use a front rack, since the trailer hitch will use up most of the real estate in the back frame of the bike. Also, I personally get a little nervous about the combined forces of a trailer and rack on the rear triangle of my bike frame. On a rough trail, the rack and trailer are going to be exerting vertical, horizontal, as well as twisting forces over various frame elements, so I usually avoid this situation just for peace of mind. The rear rack requires less effort to balance than one mounted over the front wheel, so that is mainly why it is preferred. Be careful of your loading though, since anything that gets jostled loose could be miles behind you on the trail before you notice. Also, you can easily forget it’s back there, which can result in an unintended roundhouse kick to your bow or rifle as you’re swinging your leg back during a dismount.
  3. Front rack. The front rack works fine, but it requires quite a bit more energy while riding. Adding just a few pounds on either side of the wheel will slow down your steering considerably, requiring more effort to keep the bike tracking on the trail at slower speeds. I do like mounting my hunting weapon to the front rack, though. It allows me to keep an eye on one of the more expensive pieces of hunting equipment, and make quick adjustments if anything might be coming loose. Since bows and rifles are relatively heavy, I will usually strap a water bottle or small gear sack to the opposite side of the front fork for balance. Even though I have a front rack listed lower in preference than rear rack, it is probably where I load most of my gear in the hunting season. Since a trailer is my preferred setup, I’ll usually hunt with that as much as possible, and match a front rack for hauling me weapon. When a trailer is not feasible, I will usually leave the rack on the front rather than switching it back to the rear. This ends up being a really convenient set up if I’m going to go on a quick forest grouse hunt, or any other day hunt where I want to get back in a few quick miles before taking off on foot.
  4. Backpack. I’ve always found it more efficient to keep gear loaded on the bike, where it lowers my center of mass and saves me from the fatigue of fighting an upper force (backpack). That isn’t to say that I don’t do it quite frequently, since it is the quickest and simplest way to get out hunting on a bike. But, but I prefer to reserve it for shorter rides with lighter gear loads. I usually head out with the assumption that if I kill any big game, it will be hauled out with a combination of loading to the bike racks and backpack.
Montana deer hunt from a bike
Blackburn Outpost Fat Rack
A sturdy adjustable rack is key. This is my current go-to: The Blackburn Outpost. It fits just about any bike, and can be mounted front or rear. (https://www.blackburndesign.com)

Fitness and Ability

Every spring I am surprised how easy it is to fall out of “bike shape”. I usually do a fair amount of mountain biking throughout the summer, and I even get in a fair bit of snow biking in the winter, but my biking fitness still drops off steeply once I am away from the bike for a while. Doing other exercises like running, hiking, and working out at the gym can help, but they just don’t seem to give the same conditioning as spending time out on the trail. We all know that lower body strength is important for riding, but the core strength needed for balancing a bike on rough terrain while loaded up with gear and meat is substantial. Coasting down a relatively gently grade with a load of gear will still tax you with quick, subtle, and constant movements for balance correction. Having a good baseline of core stability will make that ride out much more comfortable. Hopping on a stationary bike at the gym may seem like a good workout to prep for biking, but it is not going to get your the core strength needed, and is a poor analog for the real-life posture of mountain biking. But, if that is all you’ve got, it is still going to be better than nothing. I would recommend adding in some resistance training and combining squat variations as well. If you own a stationary bike (versus using one at the gym), try swapping out the saddle with the one from your mountain bike to help your hip posture. This will also help mitigate any initial saddle soreness you might feel when jumping on your bike after being away from it for a while. Speaking from personal experience, if your backside is sore from riding, it won’t be pleasant sitting on rocks and logs for long glassing sessions.

Snow biking in Wyoming
Badgerdog is always telling me: “Staying in shape is easier than getting in shape”.

The key really is to get out and do some riding before you head out hunting in the fall. Get out on some local dirt singletrack as much as possible. Riding down the paved bike path simply isn’t going to get your legs, core, and mind ready to load up with hunting gear and crank up the trail into the backcountry.

Hunting Permit Application Strategy: Are “Points Only” Applications Helping or Hurting You?

I’ve commented before how I think the best permit application strategy is to go all-in each spring, with the realistic expectation you will not get drawn for anything. Don’t fall into the deception that you have enough points to get drawn for a special elk unit permit, so you won’t apply for a special deer or antelope permit because you won’t have time to focus on anything but elk this year. Also, don’t skip application years because you are forecasting conflicts (work, personal, or otherwise) that are going to limit your availability for hunting. We’ve got a finite amount of time on this planet, and the number of good hunting years that you have available is just a fraction of those. You’ve got to take every chance you get.

But now, some states are offering “Points Only” permit applications for some special hunt drawings. They basically work like this: You pay your application fee to be entered into a special permit draw, check the box on your online application for “Points Only” instead of your preferred hunting unit, and your ticket won’t be entered into the hopper for random drawing in the current season’s hunt. Come next year, you will have accumulated your preference or bonus point (depending on which system is used by the state to which you have applied), which will increase your chances of drawing, just as if you had applied the year before and been unsuccessful in the draw.

Why are bonus points a good thing? Well, there are a couple situations that are pretty positive. You might have something scheduled that you know will conflict with your available time for hunting, and you just can’t find a way to slide that conflict down on your priority list without backlash from your conscience, significant other, or maybe karma. Points Only applications will allow you to continue to accrue points for that year, without the risk of being drawn for a hunting opportunity you won’t be available to take. Also, the state is still getting your application fee, which it would not receive if you had chosen not to apply due to fear of being successfully drawn and having to forfeit previously accrued points. Those dollars will go towards funding wildlife management in the state over the next year.

Why are bonus points a bad thing? As mentioned above, major life events involving health conditions and addition or subtraction of family members should usually receive precedence over all other engagements; hunting-oriented or otherwise. But don’t let the minor inconveniences and challenges of life conflate into a roadblock for your hunt of a lifetime. I’ve found that when you challenge your excuses, you usually find your issue isn’t a lack of time, but a lack of creativity. You can always put in some extra hours at work to make your boss happy before you leave for your extended hunting vacay, or you could build some flexibility into your schedule to catch up on engagements when you return, and that baby is going to be delivered regardless of whether or not you are there to witness it. Maybe that last example falls within a gray area, but the fact holds true that things will get done without you present. Points Only applications make it much more convenient to listen to those excuses. You may think that you can strategize your hunts better by “saving up” points for a year when the hunt will be most convenient. But, the reality is that there is no sure thing, no matter how many points you have. Also, many hunters are hoarding those points just like you, so you may not be getting the advantage you think you have. In addition to that, there is potentially a time when many hunters begin cashing in their points, constricting opportunities to only those who have saved up points for their golden years to hunt. And as I alluded to previously, life provides no sure things either. You never know if this is your last opportunity to go on that hunt of a lifetime.

So there are two side to Points Only applications. And if you still think you might check that box, consider this: Every time someone selects “Points Only” on their application, they are leaving an opportunity on the table. They may be planning to hammer the draw with a boatload of hoarded points in the future, but they are leaving the door open for you this year.

Backpacking Luxuries Turned Necessities and Other Tricks

Note:  I receive no compensation for any product mentioned in this post.  

Pack optimization through balance of needs and weight should be the goal for backpacking trips. But, too often we either try to go too light and cut out the things we actually need, or pack gear that goes underutilized.  We mourn the gear we left out of the pack in order to cut weight, and lament the things pull out at the end of the trip unused. I do love dialing in my pack, and tracking the ounces or even pounds that I’ve trimmed from my last trip. But I think I love the sneaky comfort items that I’ve muled in even more. I try to keep notes and an inventory of my most and least used gear, and here are some of my revelations from the last year.  Most of my camping was related to backcountry hunting, but I’m going to try and keep this list relatable to any backpacker (I’ll get some notes down about some hunting-specific revelations a little later).  Some of the items below are packable gear, and some are more along the lines of small hacks.  Also, keep in mind that I’m writing from the reference of my camping practices, which is generally a long hike in, setting up one or maybe two base camps, and mainly doing long hikes for 3-6 days, returning to base camp each night.  So, if you are mainly doing overnighters or loops, you may want to consider the specifics of your hike before filling up your pack.

New items that I will never leave behind again:

Camp chair/stool – For the last couple of years, I have watched in envy while my buddies have relaxed in ultralight camp chairs while I crouched uncomfortably over my stove each evening.  I was really tired of switching between crouching, sitting on uneven rocks, and eating dinner standing up, but even the best ultralight chairs weigh in around 1.5-2 lbs or more, and really don’t pack down as small as I would like.  But, this year, I finally found a stool that had the right balance of weight burden and comfort, and it was worth the weight (play on words there for you sharp ones).  So this year, I packed in the Micro Stool from Grand Trunk (10.6oz actual weight), which packs down very small and is the lightest seat I could find.  It only sets up to be about 10 inches off the ground, but I  actually found it to be quite comfortable (I’m 6’0″), and way better than log or stone Mother Nature had lying around.

Oil shooters with pepper chasers will cap off any meal

Extra food seasoning – I eat a lot of dehydrated meals when camping out.  They’re pretty good, but I think we can all agree they are not haute cuisine.  I don’t usually take a lot in the way of snacks, but try to rely on my main meals to get the nutrition I need.  To get the extra calories, and make things more palatable, I’ve been bringing along a couple ounces of olive oil and crushed red pepper flakes.  The olive oil makes the rehydrated food texture more relatable to a normal meal, and adds the healthy fats that the dehydrated meals usually lack.  Most of the major brands of dehydrated meals seem to utilize Indian and Latin flavor palates pretty heavily, so the red pepper is pretty compatible with most meal options.  For the sake of your gut, the last thing you want is to overdo the spiciness, but I haven’t run into that issue yet.  Red pepper flakes seem to be milder on the stomach than a lot of the other spices, but that may just be personal predisposition.  Pro Tip – Don’t worry about buying special containers for your seasoning, spent airline booze bottles are super light and work great.

My new favorite trick:

Mountain Coolers – aka pure, cold mountain streams.  Beer is delicious, but too heavy and bulky to pack in, right?  Well, at least too heavy and bulky to pack very far.  For reference, a six-pack of cans weighs in at just over five pounds.  This year, I implemented the system of packing a couple beers in just a couple miles, then dropping those beers in an icy mountain stream.  Then, on my way out, I’ve got some refreshingly cold daddy sodas to celebrate the last couple miles of a long trip through the mountains.  I realize that I’m probably not the first person to implement this strategy, but I felt smarter than the lovechild of Elon Musk and Adolf Coors when I cracked that first can of frosty suds while hiking out of the woods this fall.  As a side note, there are some precautions to take while leaving beers in stashed in the woods.  The unfiltered stream could pass along diseases on the top of the can, so take care with the water you stash in.  Also, bears have been known to enjoy chomping through unopened beers, so beware of the critters that may be poaching your cache.

Things I left behind and missed severely:

Camp shoes – Wet boots suck.  Tired feet suck.  Soft comfortable shoes are awesome.  Don’ get me wrong,  I’m very happy with the performance of my hunting boots from sunup to sundown.  But, after several warm days, feet get sweaty and tired.  Getting out of the boots and into fresh shoes in the evening is a guilty pleasure.  I don’t know if it’s just the feeling of the soft, forgiving, unsweated liners; or possibly the need for your feet to feet some subtle difference in support.  I used to go with the North Face tent mules, which are quite literally down sleeping bags for your feet, but I have graduated to slipper-shoe hybrids to walk around camp in the evenings.  I’ve currently got Teva Ember mocs (1lb 3.6oz actual weight), which have the coziness of slippers with the support of a lightweight shoe.  There isn’t too much in the way of tread, which helps reduce wear and tear on tent floors and sleeping bags (especially if you’re wearing them to bed on those extra cold nights).  The Merrel Barkley Moc is great if you want more of a shoe than a slipper, and they are very light (1lb 0.6 oz actual weight).

Chapstick – My September hunt was earlier and warmer than the last few years, and I definitely felt it in the intensity of the sun, and lack of hydration.  I typically don’t bring chapstick because I don’t like to use it hunting due to the scent that usually comes along with it.  But this year, my lips became chapped and cracked, and became a distracting and painful nag for most of a six-day trip.  It seems silly to leave such a small item behind that can have such an impact on part of your general comfort.

Items underutilized compared to years past:

Earbuds and extra phone batteries – In years past, I have usually used earbuds with my phone to listen to music while taking mid-day naps or podcasts after lights out each night.  This year, I found myself using the Kindle app on my phone more often, as well as the notes app to record my reflections of the day.  I like to use the ebooks for reading entertainment, but I also like to ability to reference field guides, trail guidebooks, or other articles on woodsmanship or hunting.  So, the moral of the story is, find some good ebooks and you won’t need the headphones.  Also, remember to utilize your phone’s power-saver function combined with airplane mode, keep your phone from being exposed to the cold too often, and your battery can last for days.

WWGD? (What Would George Costanza Do?) aka “The Opposite”

If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite has to be right.

What if every instinct you ever had was false?  What if every calculated action you took was actually detrimental to your happiness?  On May 19, 1994, American television viewers tuned in to witness a man brave enough to challenge his own pillars of belief, and his name was George Costanza.  On that night, NBC aired the 21st episode of the fifth season of Seinfeld, which was titled “The Opposite”.  In that episode, George comes up with a theory: What if every instinct, every decision he has ever made, has been wrong and is the source of all his life’s disappointments.  From that moment, he decides to begin an experiment to test the decisions he makes in his daily life.  For every action he is about to take, he consciously does the opposite of what he thinks is appropriate.  Over the next thirty minutes, we see George get his dream job with the New York Yankees, move out of his parents’ house and into a new apartment, and land a new girlfriend that most would agree is way out of his league.

I love “The Opposite” because I admire George’s courage and commitment to challenge his own status quo, and it provides an opportunity to play the “What If” game: What if George was an outdoorsman?  What if I have been behaving like George?

If George was a hunter prior to his “Opposite” epiphany, I like to think that he would hike out the same trail to the same clearing every year, throw out a few calls, scan the same treeline repeatedly, and call it a day once he considered the temperature to be “too hot for anything to be moving around”.  He would stick with the same old plan, which was probably never his to begin with.  It was probably passed along to him by a more experienced hunter, or maybe he overheard it one night at a local bar, and George lazily took it for gospel.  He abides by knowledge he considers to be commonly-accepted, or maybe he found success by simple luck the first time he tried it, so he sticks to it year after year hoping to recreate the triumph of his first outing.   This leads George in a continuing cycle of frustration and embarrassment.  He takes no risk by attempting anything different.

When George finally tries his “Opposite” approach, it isn’t easy.  It’s uncomfortable, and he risks public embarrassment with each new action.  But luckily for him, his instincts were so misaligned that each opposite decision is a substantial improvement to his situation.  The average person is not likely to see the same results as George, so it’s probably not the best idea to turn a full 180 degrees like he did.  But, the idea of challenging your assumptions, taking risks, and trying something uncomfortable is on point.

What I had been behaving like George?  I can admit that I have a tendency to fall into the same old routine, almost subconsciously, without taking a moment to consider a new technique.   I sometimes fail to question the actions that have become automatic.  For example, for years it was my instinct to make fun of my buddies that used trekking poles while out hiking.  Right before they became popular, a guy came rolling into town with a trunk full of “Swedish Walking Sticks”, and every blue hair in town came out to see him demonstrate how to walk while poking at the ground with those sticks.  The man sold off his walking sticks and left town, but the image of all those old timers walking around with their new trekking poles stuck with me.    That was the image I always associated with my friends carrying them in the woods.  But then, I finally tried them last year.  After a twelve-mile backpacking trip, my shoulders and upper back had never felt better.  No more knots, no pain in my scapula, no sore neck.  I now own two sets and I’m thinking about getting a third.

I have also realized that I have become so fixated on minimizing my pack weight that I have totally lost focus of what will really make my backpacking trip more pleasant.  I might save a few ounces with my ultralight sleeping pad, but the good night’s sleep that I get with heavier and more comfortable mat definitely outshines the weight burden.  Also, I will no longer go on a multi-day hunting trip without camp shoes again.  If I’m hunting for five or six days and spending countless miles in heavy boots, the joy of soft camp shoes at the end of a long day cannot be matched.  They definitely contain more body-rejuvenating power than the one and a half pound weight savings from leaving them back at the truck.

So, we all experience the plateau-effect from time to time.  Maybe taking some risk by trying “The Opposite” may help you get to the next level.

 

What will ruin your next hunt? (Feet Edition)

20180701_170202I am embarrassingly close to making an appointment for a pedicure. I am not usually one to partake in such indulgences, and I think my slight uneasiness with physical contact would restrict me from enjoying it (I’m not a hugger).  But, I would be willing to put all my predispositions aside if it would help me be a better hunter.  There are dozens of ways for your feet to betray you when you’re out on the trail for a week, so you should do what you can to head off those issues before they start.  Pedicures have become a common maintenance technique for professional athletes and other manly types, so I assume I could see some benefit from it as well.  Blisters, calluses, nail issues, and calf-down muscle tightness can be addressed in a 30-minute appointment.  I do suffer from some frequent ingrown toenails, so I’m curious to see what those nail-clippers could do in the hands of a real pro.

So while I go through several iterations of dialing up the local pedicurist and shyly hanging up the phone as soon as they answer, take a minute to read through some of these tips below.

Insoles

I have gone through some minor obsessions with aftermarket insoles.  I don’t know why, but even high-end boots come with a flimsy sliver of foam as the first line of contact for your feet.  For some, this minimal amount of cushion directly underfoot may be enough, but others may want more.  Insoles are pretty cheap when compared to a pair of boots, but they can make a significant difference in the way your boot feels and performs.  They can reduce foot fatigue and keep you going hiker longer.  Generally speaking from experience, as the weight of the boot increases, the need for a more substantial insole increases as well.  With a taller heeled boot, more pressure is going to be transferred to the balls of your feet, which will benefit from more cushion.  I’ve actually found that a little thicker insole can add noticeable insulation to lighter boots, keeping your feet warmer in cold conditions.  After trying out dozens of pairs of insoles looking for something to keep my feet going longer each day, I usually look for an insole with some arch support structure (my feet are generally classified as “normal arch”), medium cushion, and some ability to form-fit to my feet.  Make sure your boot has enough room in the toebox before adding a thicker insole, as crammed toes are not going to make your feet happy.  Take notice of the top surface of the footbed that will be contacting your foot.  Sometimes they can be too silky, and become irritating once your merino wool socks get a little sweaty and start sliding around.  The best bang-for-buck insoles I have found are the Columbia Enduro Soles.  They are thermo-molding, so pop it in the oven at

20180601_191252
Columbia Enduro Soles (Columbia has bought out Montrail)

200 degrees for 2 minutes, throw them in your boots, and slip your foot in for 5 minutes to create a custom foot cast.  I usually wear my hiking boots to the store so I can check fit before I purchase.  You should least take the factory insoles of the boot with you for fit comparison.  Most aftermarket insoles are made to be cut down to fit, and the original insole is usually a perfect template.

Focus on your weak points

Listen to your feet while you’re out in the field.  There was a survey for marathon runners several years ago, where they were asked how they coped with pain while running races.  The survey revealed that the more successful runners did not try to block out nagging pain, but focused on it.  By focusing on it, they were able to make adjustments to their running stride to make sure the discomfort did not become an injury that impacted their race.  Be aware of your body out in the field, and make decisions that are ultimately going to keep you out on the trail.  Be mindful of how your feet perform in the offseason, and make adjustments to ensure they are ready to perform when it counts.

Break-In (For boots and feet)

Wear your boots in the offseason, but don’t wear them out.  I had a buddy that wore his hunting boots all summer for work, only to discover the waterproofing had failed once we got into the backcountry during a snowy, wet September.  Everyone knows that you’ve got to break in your boots.  I like to take new boots, immediately oil them, and wear them laced up moderately loose (The loose lacing will help from pressure points forming between the tongue overlap and your lower shin).  I’ll wear them loose around town for a couple days before tightening them up to break-in in the field.   Depending on the boots, the field break-in period can be a couple days or a couple weeks.  Part of this is getting your boot to flex around your foot, and part of this is getting your foot used to your boot.  It can be subtle, but your foot will “get used” to your boots as well.  If you’re using custom insoles, it can be good to throw them into your everyday shoes for a couple weeks before you plan to be out in your boots.  Ultimately, you want to have confidence in your gear, so try and simulate your activities before you find yourself in a situation where poor boot performance will ruin your hunt.

Don’t let your feet get soft

Do your foot strength conditioning while relaxing.  I used to have discomfort in the joints of my big toes when on hunts where I was hiking off trail in steep terrain.  One day I made the correlation between the pressure points in my toes and the curl of the toes of the slippers and flip-flops that I’d been wearing around the house.  I decided to stop wearing any footwear when I was at home.   I began going barefoot on solid surfaces like wood floors, concrete slab, and laminate.  Big difference made!  It only took a couple weeks until I noticed an improvement in my feet.  I realized I had been making my feet into a couple of major-league wussies while sporting comfort footwear for evenings and weekends.  I guess the bigger point from this small experiment was: My feet could get tougher by adding some moderate minimalism.  I didn’t go wild and begin running marathons barefoot, and I didn’t begin preaching to my friends about how humans were meant to walk without footwear and that modern shoes were changing our musculature and posture.  But, I was wearing silly foot-cushions too much, and I believe it was detrimental to my feet.  More importantly, it was affecting how well I could perform in the woods.

 

What will ruin your next hunt?

A quick overview of things to consider in the offseason.

20180513_125309.jpgAlright, GO!  Lack of preparation, lack of skill, misunderstanding the terrain, misunderstanding your quarry, poor woodsmanship, lack of mental toughness, poor physical conditioning, equipment failure, laziness?  How about several of those problems, to some degree. I like to consider it a “smattering” of inefficiencies, and it’s basically my list of focus points.  Maybe this list of issues could simply fall under the heading of “A Lack of Honest to Oneself”.  I have gone into more than one hunting or backcountry situations (or daily life situations, really) feeling totally prepared, at least until I reached the point where I realized I was totally unprepared.  It can have real consequences, too.  I almost missed out on a great bull on my first backcountry solo hunting trip, simply because I had not given enough consideration to my mental conditioning.  Prior to the hunt, a week without human contact or personal interaction was not something that I expected to have any trouble with.  As it turned out, the solitude was miserable, and I chose to end the hunt a couple days early.  I lucked out by filling my tag the morning I had decided to pull out and head for home.  If it weren’t for luck, all those months of preparation for the hunt may not have added up to much more than a very long and drawn out learning experience.  Prior to that hunt, I had considered myself a rather socially independent and stoic person, but I had to immediately reevaluate my condition.

Preparing for a hunt should be fun (mostly).  But what happens when that sensation of enjoyment gives way to feelings of tedium, or futility, or obligation?  There is a lot of talk of “focus” while on the hunt, but I believe most of the focus begins during the summer well before you head out in the fall.  I’m going to hit on some more specific elements in the next couple weeks, but here are a couple overarching thoughts to put in the old brain bank for next time you’re prepping for the early season.

Know yourself, and be honest with yourself.  Not many people realize this little secret, but the beauty of being honest with yourself… is that it doesn’t require you to be honest with others!  You can still talk a big game to your buddies and partake in all the obligatory self-aggrandizing!  Believe me, this is something I know very well.  But all half-joking aside, it is a lot harder to make improvements if you don’t start with a solid understanding of your own limitations.  Sometimes you have to challenge your own beliefs and self-image to improve.  Truly acknowledging your limitations and weaknesses can be tougher than it sounds.

Aim for skilled balance.  We have a finite amount of time each day, so focus on the weak points that will bring you the most improvement.  Don’t fall into a trap of focusing on one thing and honing it down to perfection, while neglecting other areas.  An example would be archery skills.  I know a lot of guys that want to deck out their equipment to the point where they can stand at the range and shoot a golf ball-sized group at 60 yards, when grouping a paper plate at 60 yards is plenty accurate for hunting deer-sized animals or larger.  If you’re trying to reach perfection, you’ve likely reached a point of diminishing returns, and it may be time to look for other areas where you may have more glaring weaknesses.  Maybe focus on draw hold time, quick shots, shooting while winded, shooting on cross-slopes, or put the bow down and pick up your pack for a scouting trip to the woods.  Focus energy on the weaknesses, and you’ll find more success.

What do you hate to work on?  Do that one first.  I kind of alluded to this a couple times above.  If you find something you enjoy, you’re more likely to strengthen it to the point of unbalance.  Everything needs to fall into place for a successful hunt:  Know where the animals are, be fit enough to get after them, understand how they behave, be able to go through all the steps of an ethical harvest, and have the ability to get back home with the meat.  Lacking ability or knowledge in any of those areas will result in a failure.  If there are areas for you to improve, rank them in the order you want to do them, and complete the list from bottom to top.  This will help you touch all the bases, and also motivates you to complete your least favorite tasks in order to get to the ones you enjoy.

Daydreaming with purpose. I prefer the term ‘daydreaming with purpose’ over ‘visualizing’.  Regardless of what you want to call it, this can really help prepare.  Take some time to focus, and walk yourself through a full day of the hunt.  Imagine the steps you’ll be taking in the field, the experiences you’ll be taking in with all five senses, and especially the challenges you will likely face.  Imaging yourself facing a challenge and calmly addressing it with a confident solution.  You’ll find that you’re actually training your brain for success, and will be less prone to frustration and negative thoughts.

 

6 Lightweight Gear Upgrades

Chasing the ultralightweight savings game can be as addicting as….pretty much anything else hunting-related, and equally as expensive.  Dang, I thought I was going to come up with a sweet metaphor there.  I love getting new gear, but I’m sometimes too cheap to drop the big bucks on the hottest stuff that all the cool kids are into.  I’m not always cheap, but I prefer to think I’m putting my dollars where they can do the most damage out in the woods.  Plus, selective cheapness provides more disposable income for important things like overpriced microbrews, truck tires, and full body tattoos.  So I actually only partake in two of those three things, but feel free to substitute in your own vices.  Anyway, I’ve come up with a quick list of some of my favorite lightweight pack items.  Some are higher end and some are dirt cheap.  I hope you can find a couple to use on your next daytrip or overnighter.

*All weights listed are actual measurements unless noted otherwise.

Steripen Ultra

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The Steripen has been around for a while, but is new to me.  Not only is it 10 oz lighter than my Katadyn Hiker, but it also comes with the upside of size and time convenience as well.  What would you prefer? Slogging water for 20 minutes through a pump-style filter that takes up a quarter of your pack space, or waving a tiny lightsaber for 60 seconds.

The downside?  Unlike the pump filter, the Steripen only protects you from microorganisms.  It does not control cloudiness, chemicals, or floaters.  So make sure you have an idea of the water quality issues you may be facing before packing your gear.  It also has a vaguely similar appearance to a medical device.

Weight: 5 oz

Comparison: Katadyn Hiker – 15 oz

Hydrapak Seeker Collapsible Water Bottle (3L)

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I love this thing.  It’s lighter than a Camelbak, and you don’t have to sip through those annoying rubber straws.  It’s not rigid like a conventional water bottle, so finding a spot inside (or strapped outside) of an overfull pack is much easier.  The lack of a hose and the wide-mouth design make it much easier to clean and keep sanitary as well.  It’s quieter than a conventional water bottle too, since you can purge out the air to eliminate the ‘sloshing’ when the bottle is less than completely full.  That’s always been one of my pet peeves when trying to slink through the woods as quietly as possible.

Downside?  Like the Camelbak, it’s got that plastic taste.

Weight: 3.3 oz

Comparison: Camelbak 3L reservoir – 8 oz (claimed)

 

Outdoor Research Ultralight Dry Sack (35L)

OR Ultralight Dry Sack 35L lemongrass

How many packs do you have already?  If you’re like me, you’ve got at least one for week-long hunts, and one for day hunts, or maybe one or two that are supposed to be for both but really don’t work for either.  I use these dry sacks to add versatility to my frame pack, and have eliminated the need for a daypack for single day out-and-back hunts.  These are actually pretty damn reasonable for an “ultralight” labeled item, as I’ve actually found them for much less than other conventional dry bags.  For the burden of a couple extra ounces, my Eberlestock Mainframe pack now has the convenience, organization, and protection of a fully waterproof daypack, while still having the frame to haul meat.  Grab a couple different sizes to keep you organized for various hunting trip needs.

Downside? The material for these bags is very thin and could have durability issues, depending on where you hunt and what you’re crawling through in the field.  I’ve used them for several years and haven’t had any problems.

Weight: 3.2 oz

Comparison:  There are tons of dry sacks out there, and typical weights for 35L are around 8-10 oz or more

Black Ovis Lightweight Game Bags

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Although not cheap, they are probably the most reasonable in the lightweight game bag department.  The old standard was the Alaska Game Bag, and I still keep those around back at the truck just in case I need some backups.  The Black Ovis large bag kit comes with four bags, gloves, a lightweight tarp, a roll of flagging tape, and a mesh carry bag.  Pulling out the tarp, gloves, and flagging tape dropped the weight by a few ounces down to 13 oz.  But, bigger than the weight savings are the space savings.  The Alaska Bags are difficult to fit into a gallon-sized ziplock, and the Black Ovis bags are a little larger than a fist.

Downside?  I haven’t found any issues with them yet.

Weight: 13 oz

Comparison: Alaska Game Bags – 1 lb 8 oz

Nemo Fillo Elite Pillow: 2.8 oz

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This is a real pillow.  I have decided a pillow is a luxury that I will not forego.  I used to use the Thermarest compressible pillow, but that thing really doesn’t compress down very well, and it takes up too much valuable pack space (but it’s comfortable).  The Nemo pillow is smaller than a baseball when in its stuff sack.  It’s inflatable and has a soft, comfortable fabric surface.  Ignore the countless lightweight pillows out there on Amazon for $15.  Those feel like an old inflatable pool toy, and you would probably be more comfortable resting your head on a balled-up sweatshirt.

Downside? None found yet.

Weight: 2.8 oz

Comparison: Not using a pillow is always an option that many hunters are happy with, but I wouldn’t recommend it.  Hunting is hard and strenuous, take care of your neck.

Crystal Geyser Bottled Water (or similar) (16 fl oz): 0.4 oz

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This has got to be my ultimate cheapo-yuppy-ultralight-dummy tip. The typical bottled water packaging for brands such as Crystal Geyser, Arrowhead, or any generic store water is incredibly light, since it’s supposed to be disposable, duh.  For dayhunts where I won’t need more than a couple liters, I just pack a few of these.  They can be squashed down to purge any air from the bottle too, eliminating the annoying ‘slosh’ mentioned above.

Downside?  You’re constantly buying bottled water, even though you know tap water is fine.

Weight: 0.4 oz

Comparison – Nalgene (32 fl oz): 6 oz (I used the 32 fl oz Nalgene because it is more common, even though it’s twice the volume of the disposable bottle)